School boards clashing with ‘revolving door’ superintendents
The ouster of Miami-Dade Public Schools top administrator Rudy Crew, who was named the nation’s top superintendent just eight months ago, marks the latest clash between a high-profile urban administrator and an elected school board that some experts have dubbed a “revolving door” in education.
Mr. Crew, a nationally recognized school reformer and author who once led the New York City public school district, negotiated a $368,000 buyout of his contract Sept. 11 after political infighting and a-more-than-$250-million budget shortfall polarized the country’s fourth-largest school district.
Some educators said Mr. Crew’s departure was not a surprise. It was inevitable, they said.
“Running a large urban school system has become almost an impossible job,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), which honored Mr. Crew, 58, as National Superintendent of the Year in February.
Mr. Domenech, who once helmed the schools in Fairfax County, Va., defended Mr. Crew’s tenure in Miami-Dade, noting that he fell victim to political struggles similar to those that have marred the success of urban public school administrators across the country.
“The benchmarks would indicate that academically, he was doing a very good job down there. He’s a very popular writer and speaker on the education circuit, and he has a passion for kids and excellence in schools,” said Mr. Domenech, who decried the increasingly political nature of elected school boards as an impediment to administrators and student progress.
“With boards that are elected, when things are not going the way they like it go, they rail against the one person they can rail against, and that’s the superintendent,” he said, comparing the role of superintendent to that of the coach of a popular home team that isn’t doing very well.
“You can’t get rid of all of the players, so you get rid of the coach,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the long run, it does them no good to have this revolving door. They never have the longevity that you need to have in a school system for programs to set in and for progress to be made over the long term.”
According to data supplied by Market Data Retrieval and released by the AASA, between the 2005 and 2006 school years, 13,251 school boards hired 2,244 superintendents. The number, denoting a national annual turnover rate for superintendents is near 17 percent, is similar to previous years, which means that about 17 percent of districts annually are seeking superintendents in a given year.
According to the Washingtonbased Council of the Great City Schools, the average tenure for an urban superintendent is just 3.1 years.
Mr. Domenech noted that Mr. Crew, whose contract would have extended until 2010, outlasted that mark. Still, Mr. Crew was not on the job long enough to enact broad, sweeping reforms or see the kind of changes that students need.
“It can’t be done in 3.1 years,” Mr. Domenech adds, noting an increasing shortage of skilled school administrators. “It really requires much longer than that.”
Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, said being an urban superintendent requires an educator who can navigate like a politician, but often that’s a complicated dance. Even the most determined often run afoul of personality struggles and local control.
“Rudy Crew has a reputation of breaking china and getting things done,” he said. “Miami is a perfect illustration of why we need to reform the governance of urban school systems.
“The best CEO in the world could not survive the political environment of Miami,” he said. “It’s not conducive to getting results, it’s about playing politics.”
In many cases, Mr. Petrilli argues, shifting from an elected board to mayoral control has helped urban superintendents focus more on meaningful reform and less on community politics.
He cites Arne Duncan, who was named chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools by Mayor Richard M. Daley in June 2001, and Joel Klein, who was appointed chancellor of the New York City Department of Education by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002, as school leaders who are making progress through longevity.
“They have the support and backing of the mayor, and they are able to avoid some of the politics that superintendents have to play with the school board,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to make one boss happy than seven or nine.”
Mr. Crew joined the Miami school distr ict in 2004, and earned a salary of $350,000. He previously led school districts in Sacramento, Calif., and Tacoma, Wash. He took over as public schools chancellor in New York City in 1995, and clashed with then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani over the use of school vouchers. New York bought out his contract in 1999, and he moved back to the Northwest to create an educational leadership organization at the University of Washington. He later worked at a foundation in San Francisco be- fore being hired in Miami.
Although he arrived there with much fanfare, he battled with longtime district employees and came under fire for being autocratic and out of touch with the community’s needs. Despite the infighting, his district was recognized by the Broad Foundation as one of the top five urban school districts in the county. The National School Boards Association also honored Mr. Crew in 2007 with its Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) Award of Excellence.
Mr. Crew did not attend the school board meeting on his settlement, but his attorney said he was pleased with the terms.
“He loves the children, and he’s concerned about the progress that’s going to be made on his initiatives,” lawyer H.T. Smith told the Miami Herald this month. “But he understands that the minority of board members have made him ineffective.”
It was not clear whether Mr. Crew was negotiating future employment, but his attorney and others said he would have options in public education.
“If Rudy Crew wants to continue to be superintendent, there will be a number of districts calling on him,” Mr. Domenech said. “Clearly, there are not that many people in the country that have the expertise and the skills and ability to do the job.”